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Tinnitus: A Useful Guide

• Written by Josh

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Tinnitus is a hearing condition which creates a sensation of hearing a sound in the absence of any external sound around you. This is a condition which can cause you considerable amounts of confusion and frustration.

Today's post will look at what exactly the condition is, how it's caused and what the symptoms are. We will also look at the possible treatments to help you get through the condition.

What is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus is a hearing condition which can affect people of all ages, however it is more common in people over the age of 65. It is also more common in those who have suffered from hearing loss or any other ear problems.

In the UK, persistent cases of the condition are estimated to affect around six million people, with around 600,000 people experiencing tinnitus to a severity that affects their quality of life. The British Tinnitus Association describe the condition in the following way:

Tinnitus is the term for the sensation of hearing a sound in the absence of any external sound. About 30% of people will experience tinnitus at some point in their lives."

Symptoms

Tinnitus is commonly referred to as a "ringing in the ears," which is a clue to the symptoms which most people will experience. Each person will experience different sounds and symptoms, but the common sounds include:

  • Whistling.
  • Buzzing.
  • Hissing.
  • Humming.
  • Grinding.

This sounds can be continuous or they may come and go, and the condition can seem to be coming from one or both ears, in the middle of your head or it may be difficult to pinpoint. Such is the difficulty, sometimes some people may think the noise is coming from outside and hunt for it.

In some cases, you may head sounds which are similar to music or singing (musical tinnitus) or experience noises which beat in time with their pulse (pulsatile tinnitus).

Causes

This condition can develop gradually over time or can occur suddenly. The actual cause of tinnitus is not yet known, however it is often linked to hearing loss as well as the following:

  • Earwax build-up.
  • A middle ear infection.
  • Inner ear damage caused by repeated exposure to loud noises.
  • Ménière's disease, which causes hearing loss and vertigo.
  • Otosclerosis, an inherited condition where an abnormal bone growth in the middle ear causes hearing loss.

Despite these associated problems, around one in every three people with the condition won't have any obvious problem with their hearing or ears. The British Tinnitus Association give the following explanation for the causes of the condition:

It is generally agreed that tinnitus results from some type of change, either mental or physical, not necessarily related to hearing. When we hear, sound travels into the ear and then the hearing nerves take the signals to the brain. The brain is then responsible for putting it all together and making sense of the sound. If there is a change in the system, for example, a hearing loss or ear infection, the amount of information being sent to the brain changes."

Fortunately, tinnitus is rarely a sign of a serious underlying condition. It may be that it comes and goes without any major irritation, however some cases can be continuous and can have a significant impact on everyday life.

Severe cases can be very distressing, affect concentration, and cause problems such as difficulty sleeping and depression. Although your condition will get better over time, it's still important to visit your doctor to see if an underlying cause can be found and treated, and to help you find ways to cope with the condition.

Diagnosis

When you visit your doctor, they can examine your ears to see if the problem has been caused by a condition which can be treated easily, such as an ear infection. They can also carry out some checks to see if you are suffering from any hearing loss. Your doctor will also want to know about the type of sounds that you're experiencing, and if you're currently on any forms of medication that could cause tinnitus.

In some cases, you may be referred to an audiologist, a hearing specialist, who will carry out a range of hearing tests. Alternatively, you may be referred to the ear, nose and throat department at hospital. They will examine your ears and once again ask about the severity of the noises.

Treatment

There is no cure for tinnitus, and currently there is no single treatment that works for everybody. If an underlying cause of your tinnitus can be found, effectively treating it may help improve your tinnitus – for example, removing a build-up of earwax might help.

If your doctor is unable to find a specific cause, your treatment will focus more on helping you to cope with the condition daily. Examples of this include:

  • Counselling - Therapy sessions aimed at educating you about the condition and helping you to learn how to cope with it.
  • Sound Therapy - This involves listening to neutral sounds to distract you from the tinnitus sounds.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy - This aims to change the way you think about your condition so that it becomes less noticeable.
  • Tinnitus Retraining Therapy - This aims to help retrain the way your brain responds to the condition, so that you begin to tune out the sounds and become less aware of them.

There are also things that you can do to help manage your condition. Useful techniques include trying to relax at much as possible, as stress can make your condition worse. Perhaps some deep breathing or yoga could help you to keep calm.

Other self-help techniques include taking part in hobbies and activities to help keep you busy and distracted. Sticking to a regular sleeping patter and avoiding any caffeine or alcohol before bed time may also help.

In the years to come there may be some form of medication available to help treat your condition, with a number of new medicines currently being trialed in NHS hospitals.

Prevention

Tinnitus cannot always be prevented, as there are several causes and reasons why people experience it. However, there are things that you can do to help protect yourself from the condition in certain situations.

For example, if you're going to a festival or club you should avoid standing or sitting by the speakers. If you're going to be exposed to sounds over 85dB, then you should consider wearing ear plugs. The British Tinnitus Association have put together a useful guide to sound levels and maximum exposure times, here're some examples:

  • Tube Train - 91dB - Two Hours (maximum exposure time).
  • MP3 Player (max volume) - 103dB - 7.5 minutes (maximum exposure time).
  • Motorbike - 106dB - 3.75 minutes (maximum exposure time).
  • Live Rock Band - 112dB - 66 seconds (maximum exposure time).

To try and avoid ear infections, which can lead to tinnitus, you should ensure that you keep any earplugs or hearing aids clean. If you use headphones on a regular basis, make sure that you're listening at a safe sound level. Your ears adjust to the levels you listen to, so if you listen to it loud, you will want to keep listening to it loud. If you turn it down, it might seem too quiet at first, but your ears will gradually adjust.

Finally, you should always remember to take a break from loud sounds. Your ears will be able to cope with loud sounds if you're not constantly listening to them.

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